Despite its title, “Elysium” is no promised land.
Expectations were high that the film starring Matt Damon would carry the flag for thoughtful, big-budget films that care about more than profits. But it has ended up as something of a disappointment, an epic that has gone over to the dark side without realizing it.
That anticipation came courtesy of “District 9" — the 2009 science fiction film by Neill Blomkamp, “Elysium’s” South African writer-director — which came out of nowhere to be nominated for four Oscars, including best picture and adapted screenplay.
“District 9" succeeded in part because of the strength of its unexpected core idea: that aliens coming to Earth were not necessarily a dominant species but instead were rounded up and segregated in their own parts of town the way blacks had been in South Africa.
“Elysium” makes a similar attempt to graft socio-political concerns onto a sci-fi framework, but the idea is less electric here and the combining of genre and theme not as adroitly done.
Initially, however, things do seem promising in “Elysium,” in large part because of how its subject matter is compellingly visualized on screen (Philip Ivey is the production designer).
The year is 2154, and Earth, thanks to the destructive effects of pollution, overpopulation and related ills, is in horrific shape. Blighted, devastated slums cover the planet, and they are home to the poorest people (a Mexico City garbage dump stands in for Los Angeles).
Anyone of wealth and status now lives on Elysium, a circular space station whose shape is reminiscent of the much smaller one in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001.” The air is pure, robots do the work, and everywhere there are healing machines that cure what ails you. Think of a flesh-and-blood version of the disparities in Disney’s “Wall-E” and you’ll get the general idea.
Making the best of things on the planet is Max, played by a bulked-up, head-shaved, tattooed Damon. Max is a former car thief, once a legend in his Los Angeles neighborhood, who is working on a factory assembly line hoping to better his lot and maybe even get to Elysium someday.
Clearly, social inequality is very much on Blomkamp’s mind, and when you add in illegal, clandestine space flights from Earth to Elysium by people desperate for medical attention, it’s clear that hot-button issues like illegal immigration and universal access to healthcare are on the table as well.
This is all well and good, but, paradoxically, once the actual plot of “Elysium” kicks in, these issues fade from the film’s consciousness and the traditional, less involving tropes of good-guy-versus-bad-guy action take center stage. Although the pulp energy that Blomkamp brings to this material makes it consistently watchable, the film doesn’t feel as singular as we would have hoped.
Max, given a hard time by the humorless droids who police Earth, has to go to the local hospital where he gets reacquainted with nurse Frey (Alice Braga), his childhood soul mate from, no kidding, the orphanage where they both grew up.
Back at the plant where Max works, things get worse. Our hero is put in a dangerous situation and ends up with a lethal dose of radiation that will kill him in five days. His only hope is to somehow get to Elysium and make use of one of those miraculous cure-all machines.
Not averse to helping Max are his neighborhood pal Julio (Mexico’s Diego Luna) and Spider (Brazil’s Wagner Moura), who runs illegal shuttles to Elysium. But the price is steep: Max, fortified by an exoskeleton that gives him added strength, will have to capture one of Elysium’s top dogs, evil plutocrat John Carlyle (William Fichtner) and download information from the man’s brain, a situation riskier than anyone imagines. And more pedestrian.
For one thing, the villains in “Elysium” are very conventional. Aside from Carlyle, Jodie Foster — displaying excellent French and a stern visage — is one-dimensional as the Armani-clad Dragon Lady villainess determined to protect Elysium no matter the cost. Kruger, her thuggish enforcer (“District 9" star Sharlto Copley) is even more of a cliché.
Countering all this is Damon, who is a big plus as always, instinctively humanizing thankless roles like Max and making them look easy.
But once Max faces off with Kruger and his gang, as they inevitably must, all thoughts of anything besides hand-to-hand combat fade into insignificance. The plot gets unnecessarily confusing, and violent images, including a particularly grotesque blown-away face, push everything else away. “Elysium” may think it is about issues, but at times like these, that’s very hard to see.
MPAA Rating: R, for strong bloody violence and language throughout
Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes
In general release